On the surface, One the Bear seems like a simple story. Two best friends, One and Ursula, who happen to be bears, live in the forest. One dreams of stardom, gets discovered and is then quickly churned up by the gears of celebrity and the media and must find a way to come back to herself and her real friendship.
But in the hands of writer Candy Bowers’s Black Honey Theatre Company, this fairy tale becomes an incredibly layered allegory about race, celebrity culture, cultural appropriation and the consumption of black women’s bodies.
Bowers says much of the story was inspired by her work running workshops with disadvantaged kids through La Boite Theatre Company. “I knew I wanted to write something for teenagers and kids,” she says, “I wanted it to be a gift to them but also a challenge to the world we live in and the media teenagers consume. A lot of the kids were in and out of school and in and out of detention, and they were these amazing poets and storytellers and they helped round out the characters and their stories.
“I wanted it to work like those original fairy tales – like a good cautionary tale,” Bowers continues. “I thought about what the biggest wolf lurking in the closet at the moment was. I think it’s the media, it’s celebrity culture. I show a young person onstage being eaten alive by the industry and how friendship can offer hope and a way back.”
But One the Bear isn’t just for kids and teenagers. With the talents of people like cutting-edge street artist Jason Wing and activist and hand-sewing “stitch witch” Sarah Seahorse making costumes, and Candy’s sister and Black Honey collaborator Kim “Busty Beatz” Bowers on beats, One the Bear creates a world that’s cool, fun and exciting to look at for any theatregoer.
Or, non-theatre goer. “So many times I sit in a theatre and I’m thinking, when is the beat ‘gonna drop? When is my whole life ‘gonna come together in one place on stage?” Bowers says. “I think that’s what people get from this play; the realisation that theatre, hip-hop, art, fashion and so much else can all take place on the one stage.”
Despite One the Bear’s energy and big characters, it’s still a story rooted in an important political conversation, specifically about how black women’s bodies have been used and commodified throughout history. Bowers says that it was important to get these messages across in a playful way.
“In one scene, Ursula comes up to One and says, ‘Oh I see all the hunters are getting fake bear tails now, so they get the tail without the oppression!’” Bowers says. “People giggle along but it’s a very real concept: that white people take the bits that they want to take from other cultures and close their eyes to all the truths of how those cultures are oppressed, and all the bad stuff that goes along with actually being a person of colour.”
With Black Honey, Candy and Kim Bowers have staged numerous award-winning shows. They’ve just come off a successful tour of their cabaret show Hot Brown Honey, which won a Total Theatre UK Award for experimentation and innovation of the form. But it’s not always smooth sailing: born in Australia to South African parents, Bowers says she’s often confronted by how far behind the conversation around race in Australia can be.
“Speaking those truths out loud can really shake people. And people always want to shoot the messenger,” she says. “We do it in a kind of sneaky way with these loveable characters, but in interviews I’m really direct about my experience having trouble getting work or experiencing racism and people don’t want to believe it. Even when we get these huge accolades, the recognition doesn’t always turn into work the way it can for white male counterparts.”
One problem she says the industry could be working much harder to fix is the lack of women and people of colour reviewing theatre shows. “I was clear from the start that I wanted women and people of colour reviewing and writing about this work because it’s just vital,” she says. “Then I got the list of reviewers and media coming and still a large majority of the people on there were white men. I went myself to a Brisbane women’s theatre network to recruit female writers, and told these big platforms that they need to be hiring these women. It’s ridiculous that I still have to do that.”
One the Bear runs from Tuesday October 10 to Saturday October 21 in La Boite’s Roundhouse Theatre. Tickets are available from the La Boite Website.
UPDATE: One the Bear's opening night has been postponed until Thursday October 12.